Date
24 January 2017
GrabTalk provides personal assistant services to help expats deal with language obstacles and other issues they may encounter in China. Photo: Bloomberg
GrabTalk provides personal assistant services to help expats deal with language obstacles and other issues they may encounter in China. Photo: Bloomberg

How AI can help expats in China

Expatriates who don’t speak Chinese may encounter difficulties in almost every aspect of their lives in China.

Fortunately, GrabTalk, a Beijing-based startup, has come up with a solution.

The company has released a personal helper app, as well as a service on WeChat, to help expats deal with the language obstacles.

After a user sends a request in English, the personal assistant will make the corresponding arrangement.

For example, a users can send “I want to get a taxi to the Forbidden City” on the app, or via WeChat, then GrabTalk will help to call a taxi or Uber.

GrabTalk can also help in moving, visa application and other issues an expat may encounter.

Most of the works is currently done by real people, but the app also makes use of artificial intelligence (AI).

Similar personal helper services have started to emerge in the United States since May last year. Among the startups providing similar services are Magic, Operator and GoButler.

Chen Mo, GrabTalk’s co-founder, doesn’t think they are copycats. “We have had this idea since the end of 2014,” he said. “In January 2015, we got ample investment and started operation.”

Why GrabTalk chose to serve expats and other foreigners visiting China? Because they do encounter big issues while traveling, making payments, and trying to communicate in China.

Chen said his wife is a Hongkonger, and everytime she visits Beijing, she would ask his help to deal with everything, whether the matter is big or small.

So he has a fairly good idea of the troubles that expats and foreign tourists face in China.

Since January, after a year of operation, GrabTalk has been receiving orders worth over 1 million yuan (US$154,565) a month, with gross profit margin of 10 percent.

Although it has yet to break even, the company enjoys good business growth and has started adopting AI to reduce reliance on human helpers; salaries account for the company’s biggest cost.

If AI can meet a larger part of the demand, the company will be able to welcome faster growth of user base.

“The three founders all hold PhD in Computer Science. We have specialties in bot technologies and researches,” Chen said.

GrabTalk has started to expand outside the mainland. In Hong Kong, you can use the app to make reservations in restaurants at the IFC mall.

It expects to expand to other Chinese-speaking regions like Taiwan later.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on April 19.

Translation by Myssie You

[Chinese version中文版]

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MY/JP/CG

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